All Siyani Chambers wanted to do was make sure no one pressed the panic button.
At Levien Gymnasium, there was the blare from the Columbia band, and the wails from the student sections that bounced off the brick walls.
Then there was the howl of the scoreboard horn, which was hellbent on drowning out every other sound in a room already full of racket.
There were cheerleaders and chatter, referees and whistles.
It was the first stop on Harvard’s four-game trip earlier this month, and the Crimson were trying not to unravel.
Brandyn Curry had just dribbled the ball off his foot. Wesley Saunders had been called for traveling and the Crimson were giving away possessions. Columbia was starting to hijack momentum.
The decibel level was so high that when the brief window of silence came, Harvard coach Tommy Amaker grabbed it. It was an awkward moment when the loud gym finally fell to a hush and the only thing you could hear was Amaker yelling at official Jeff Janosik, “Jeff! Timeout!”
When the Crimson came out of the timeout, Chambers found each of his teammates and gave him a thumbs up. At that point, Chambers had no idea the Crimson were in for a double-overtime tightrope walk. But if he remained calm, he figured, there was no reason why they wouldn’t.
“Just giving everybody a thumbs up, giving them a high-five or something, just making sure they’re relaxed,” Chambers said of Harvard’s 88-84 win. “On the road, they start making a run and you start making a few mistakes, people can start to get tight and you don’t really want that.
“I think it’s my job as a point guard to make sure everybody’s all right, everybody’s on the same page. When you go out there and you’re all right and you feel relaxed, then you play a lot better.”
That Chambers is Harvard’s floor general is a given. He’s a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award as the nation’s top point guard and the reigning Ivy League player of the week.
But that he’s the emotional compass for the Crimson is sort of a paradox.
On one hand, he’s easily the team’s biggest ball of energy. When he misses a layup on the road, he doesn’t hear the crowd because he’s yelling at himself. When he misses a free throw, he hops up as if the line had turned into a spike strip.
“He’s always really intense,” said Curry. “He’s a fiery one. He’s always got a lot of energy. That’s who he is and that’s why we love playing with him. He definitely brings a lot of emotion to the game and he loves playing, loves winning.”
‘I think it’s my job as a point guard to make sure everybody’s all right, everybody’s on the same page.’
On the other hand, he’s the one who makes sure the Crimson never overheat emotionally.
“He does a great job of keeping everybody in check, making sure our minds are right so we can keep playing our game,” said sharpshooter Laurent Rivard.
Chambers is the type of player who pushes all his chips in on every possession, redlining it up the floor as soon as he touches the ball. That pace is essential to a Harvard offense that leads the Ivy League in scoring. But what makes it work is that even though Chambers plays like a daredevil, he’s rarely reckless.
“Even when he’s high-strung or he’s wired, there are a lot of guys that can be like that and not be under control at the same time,” said Amaker. “He is. He can show emotion, but rarely is he — we use a phrase here — he’s never emotionally drunk.
“He’s well-schooled beyond his years when it comes to that. He can have the emotion and the enthusiasm and all the rah-rah-rah things that come with being wired, while at the same time having a semblance of control and understanding and responsibility. I think that comes with that position.”
That composure came over time. Last season, he led the Ivy in minutes and assists, finished sixth in scoring, and was the runaway Rookie of the Year. But he also was second in average turnovers (3.4). In certain situations, Chambers said, he would tighten up. He noticed how it would trickle down to his teammates.
“Coach sat me down like, ‘At all times you’ve got to remain composed and relaxed because everybody feeds off that energy,’ ” Chambers said. “ ‘If you look that way in the tough times, then they’ll look that way in the tough times.’ ”
This season, he leads the league in assists and is third in minutes, but he’s shaved nearly a full turnover off his average (2.5).
“Last year, when tense situations came, I got tense,” Chambers said. “When your teammates see the point guard get tense — whatever team it is, the point guard has got to keep his emotions in check.”
Thrives under pressure
For a lot of reasons, the last game of Harvard’s trip was the toughest. For one, the Crimson were going to Jadwin Gymnasium, where they hadn’t won in 25 years.
But there was also the fact that Princeton’s student section is hostile. There’s no finesse in their heckling.
“In all honesty, that’s what we expect,” Amaker said. “That’s what we’ve gotten.”
Everyone is a potential target. Before the game, it was official Andrew Maira. They played nice with him initially, offering compliments about his physique.
“Let’s have a good game ref!”
Tall and relatively muscular, Maira has the look of someone who hasn’t missed many trips to the gym. The Princeton fans noticed.
“I see that back. You been working out?”
When Maira turned and gave them a quick thumbs up, it was like they bonded. The bond was short-lived. When Maira turned to chat with Chambers, the student section turned on him.
“What are you talking to him for?”
Quickly, Chambers ended up in their crosshairs. There wasn’t anything artful about their insults.
“Them big-[expletive] lips,” one yelled.
“Your light-skinned [expletive],” another yelled.
But it’s an atmosphere in which Chambers thrives.
“He’s played in a lot of tough places,” Amaker said. “That comes with it, especially that position, I think, because people are looking at you. I think he gets that very, very well.”
For the 34 minutes that Chambers was on the floor, that was the soundtrack. Most of the night, he seemed to tune it out. The Crimson were in a double-digit, first-half hole, trying to close out their trip with a win in a building in which they hadn’t won since 1989. Chambers’s emotions had to take a back seat.
“I don’t know if I had to calm him down,” Amaker said. “He may have been calming me down.”
It’s one of the differences a year has made for Chambers.
“This year, going through all the situations, I know how to react,” he said. “I know how to try to compose myself and compose the team also. As a point guard, that’s your job to do.”
But he definitely took notice.
In the second half, once Harvard had the game in their control, the most Princeton’s student section could muster was a plea to play a different sport.
“Let’s play football!” was their last chant.
During a stoppage in play, Chambers wandered to the corner of the court closest to the student section. His 13 points, 8 assists, and 5 rebounds had pretty much muzzled them. But he turned their way and shot them a quick, cool glare, finally acknowledging their night’s work.
It was all the acknowledgment he would give them.Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.